The Sanctuary of a Wine Cellar

After the dreadful destruction of the recent extreme weather across America and the Caribbean, one particular story caught the imagination. Sir Richard Branson, the famously bearded-entrepreneur, hid from the destruction on his private island… in his wine cellar. So far so sensible. But it did lead to some slightly tongue in cheek comments. The News Quiz quipped “if the phrase ‘concrete wine-cellar’ makes it difficult to sympathise let me reassure you, the story was very different for his Champagne Attic”

This is, however, far from the first time a wine cellar has turned refuge…

As a leading member of the French resistance, Maurice Drouhin was a top target for the Gestapo. As well as being a liaison officer for General McArthur, Drouhin was a noted winemaker and vineyard holder in Burgundy. When, in June 1944, the fascists came knocking to take Maurice in for questioning he was able to hide in the Hopsices de Beaune’s cellars. A sprawling, vaulted labyrinth of nearly a hectare, the cellars provided an ideal refuge during the next four months of conflict, hidden safely away amongst the bottles.

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There are several accounts of members of the secret forces,resistance and others uses France’s wealth of cellars to avoid detection during Nazi occupation.

The striking images of Rheims and the surrounding area during the Great War make for grim viewing. It’s unimaginable how life, yet alone winemaking, could have gone on. However, here too wine cellars sheltered some of France’s most prestigious winemakers and their friends and families. André 16bda45b26b7121d61bba74a5cc94fd3--historical-photos-wwiRuinart took refuge in their cavernous cellars beneath Rheims as the conflict on the Western Front engulfed the region. He even set up his office below ground, inviting in neighbours and employees to also take shelter, so they he could continue to produce wine.

It can go wrong though…
There are occasions when a well hidden cellar can lead to wines almost being lost from history completely. Hiding cellars from the authorities, for tax or legal reasons, is relatively common. But like all good treasure troves, they’re not always retrieved. Over ninety years after its creation to hide wine from the government, a wall in New Jersey was knocked down in June of this year. Behind it was a cellar holding over 50 bottles and 42 demijohns of rare Madeira wine – dating back as early as 1769. The whole place had been covered up and forgotten about for decades.

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There’s also no escape when things do go wrong in a cellar. Before the development of the Champagne method, a cellar could be a deadly place. In the cold winters of Northern France, newly made wine would lie chilled – the yeast contained inside dormant. But as Spring hits, the warmth reaches down to these cellars and causes the yeast to reactive and begin a secondary fermentation. Until the 17th Century glass wasn’t strong enough to hold the reaction inside, leading to a lethal combination of exploding bottles and shards of glass. Cellars could very quickly become places of terrible injury and unexplained terror.